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Thousands of South Koreans rush to apply for reunions with North Korean kin

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June 17, 2000 


SEOUL (AP) - Myung Shi-chung carefully wrote down everything he knew about the 8-year-old brother he left behind in North Korea in 1948. Then he glued his photograph to the application Friday, officially registering his family as one of the thousands divided by the North-South border.


Stepping outside the Red Cross registration office, Myung broke down in tears, his hand trembling and shoulders shaking as he tried to light a cigarette. "I gave up on the idea of seeing my brother again years ago. But the summit talks changed my mind."


Myung, 71, is among the estimated 1.2 million refugees from the North living in South Korea today. More than half are over the age of 60; more than 200,000 are in their 70s. Most left behind relatives in the North.


After five decades divided by the world's most heavily armed border - letters, phone calls and travel are banned between the two Koreas - most have no idea whether their relatives are still alive. Reuniting these aging families was a key topic of discussion at this week's three-day inter-Korea summit in Pyongyang.


On Wednesday, the North's Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae-jung agreed to begin allowing reunions starting on a holiday both countries share - Aug. 15, the day Korea was freed from Japanese colonial rule in 1945.


Since the moment Kim Jong Il reached out with two hands to greet the president, surprising the South with his ready smile and warm welcome, more than 2,000 people have flooded registration offices to apply for reunions, bringing the total to 148,000, Red Cross officials said.


Byung Seung-hyop, 70, of the Seoul suburb of Anyang, said he was so moved by the summit's success that he got on a train early Friday morning to apply to find his family.


Like thousands of other young men, Byung fled his village in the months after the outbreak of the 1950-53 Korean War to avoid being drafted by the communists. He was 19.


"We thought it would just be for a short while, so all the men - me, my father, my cousins - went South, leaving my mother and 13-year-old brother behind," he recalled.


"How were we to know we'd never see them again?"


His dream: to bow at his mother's grave with his younger brother at his side and to bring his four daughters and son to see his birthplace.


"Before I die, I'd like to show them all the sights I loved growing up," he said.


In 55 years, there has been only one official meeting of separated families. In 1985, after 14 years of negotiations, 30 North Koreans traveled to Seoul to meet their South Korean kin; later, 35 South Koreans traveled north to Pyongyang for a four-day visit.


Myung said he hopes he'll be among the next group allowed to travel to the North to find the brother he has wondered about for more than 50 years.


"When I think of that, tears come in my eyes," Myung said. "It's my dream to see my younger brother just once before I die."



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